WORDS MICHAEL BEHAR PHO­TOG­RA­PHY CHRISTO­PHER GRIFFITH We all know pro­tein is the sin­gle most im­por­tant build­ing block of mus­cle growth. But sci­ence is only now dis­cov­er­ing ex­actly how much pro­tein we should be get­ting and – just as im­por­tantly – when we sh

Men's Fitness - - Features -

As­mall plas­tic pouch filled with dark brown, or­ganic mat­ter ar­rived at my doorstep to­day. No, I didn’t im­me­di­ately bolt down the street in hot pur­suit of some ma­li­cious teenagers. In­stead, I took a closer look and found that the bag ac­tu­ally con­tained some­thing else en­tirely: dead crick­ets. I knew Alex Drys­dale, founder of Crik Nu­tri­tion, was ea­ger for me to sam­ple his flag­ship prod­uct. I just hadn’t ex­pected it so soon – he’d shipped it overnight from his of­fice in Win­nipeg, Canada.

Drys­dale, a for­mer com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­ni­cian who quit his job in 2015 to cash in on the pro­tein boom, swears that these tempt­ing morsels “are loaded with nu­tri­ents be­cause they’re made from whole, crushed-up cricket – you’re eat­ing the ex­oskele­ton and all the or­gans.” I try not to pic­ture cricket guts when I open the pouch and take a whiff. Sur­pris­ingly, the smell is sweet and nutty. Feel­ing brave, I shove a spoon­ful in my mouth. Com­pared with gritty and bit­ter whey and soy pow­der va­ri­eties, this stuff dis­solves in­stantly on my tongue and tastes like al­monds and honey.

Crik is just the lat­est form of pro­tein I’ve eaten re­cently. The oth­ers in­clude pro­tein-in­fused gra­nola, pro­tein pan­cakes, high­pro­tein Greek yo­gurts and a wide va­ri­ety of pow­ders – whey, soy, pea, hemp and now cricket. The pro­tein in­dus­try reaps about £8 bil­lion an­nu­ally world­wide, a fig­ure that’s more than quadru­pled since 2005. Some dis­miss this as just an­other fleet­ing food fad, the re­sult of a con­nec­tion to a few pop­u­lar high-pro­tein di­ets such as Pa­leo. A few ex­perts claim we’re eat­ing too much pro­tein. But, I’m happy to re­port, sci­en­tists who study pro­tein in­sist oth­er­wise.

For the record, the US Rec­om­mended Di­etary Al­lowance (RDA) of­fi­cially rec­om­mends just 0.36 grams of pro­tein per pound of body­weight (around 0.8g per kilo­gram), while the NHS sug­gests roughly the same amount – 0.75g per kilo. “That’s de­signed for the av­er­age per­son to just ex­ist – hang out, watch TV, do what­ever,” says Dr Mike Nel­son, an ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­o­gist and founder of Ex­treme Hu­man Per­for­mance, a fit­ness coach­ing firm that ad­vo­cates a high-pro­tein diet.

“But if you’re not the av­er­age per­son, and you’re ex­er­cis­ing more in­tensely, you’re go­ing to need more pro­tein.”

At 160lb (72.7kg), the US RDA puts me at 58g a day, which is scarcely more than a pot of Greek yo­gurt at break­fast and a small chicken breast for lunch, with zero pro­tein for din­ner. But based on re­cent find­ings, nu­tri­tion sci­en­tists now ad­vise at least 0.68g per pound (1.5g/kg) and up to 0.75g (1.65g/kg) if you’re do­ing in­ten­sive weight train­ing – mul­ti­ple days of the week – and want to bulk up fast. That would put my rec­om­mended in­take at 120g a day, di­vided into four serv­ings, con­sumed roughly four hours apart. Dr Stu­art Phillips, a pro­fes­sor of ki­ne­si­ol­ogy at McMaster Uni­ver­sity in Canada, who stud­ies how pro­tein sup­ports mus­cle growth, tells me that be­cause I ex­er­cise five or six days a week, 110g a day should be am­ple. I bump up my in­take ac­cord­ingly, al­most dou­bling it.

Two weeks later I’ve dropped 5lb (2.3kg)– most of it off my belly. I’m lift­ing more weight for chest and over­head presses. But the most pro­found change is in re­cov­ery. The throb­bing quads and calves I’d suf­fer af­ter long runs? Gone. And when I over­load my mus­cles while lift­ing, the sore­ness lasts for hours in­stead of days.

Now I crave pro­tein like a drug. I eat it in the morn­ing and be­fore bed. I eat every­thing from omelettes to salmon to pul­verised in­sects that look like shit. And here’s the thing: I’ve never felt bet­ter.

When I con­vey my ex­pe­ri­ence to Dr Robert Wolfe, one of the early pi­o­neers in pro­tein sci­ence and now di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Trans­la­tional Re­search in Age­ing and Longevity at the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas, he’s not sur­prised. “When you look at the re­search, it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be im­pressed with the ben­e­fits of a higher pro­por­tion of pro­tein than the

RDA in the diet,” he says. Eat more pro­tein, he says, and “by and large, you’re go­ing to be fit­ter. That’s the re­al­ity.”


De­spite every­thing we know about the con­nec­tion be­tween pro­tein and mus­cle growth (pro­tein ef­fec­tively means the amino acids from foods that our bod­ies re­quire to be healthy and strong but don’t pro­duce), it wasn’t un­til very re­cently that sci­en­tists be­gan to de­ter­mine just how much pro­tein we should be eat­ing, what types (an­i­mal or plant), when (morn­ing or evening) and how much.

“In the 1980s, we used to think that if you av­er­aged out your rec­om­mended pro­tein in­take over a week, you were

OK,” says Dr Nancy Ro­driguez, a pro­fes­sor of nutri­tional stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut. “But fast-for­ward ten years or more, and we re­alised it wasn’t just about hav­ing pro­tein ev­ery two or three days. You should be eat­ing it ev­ery day, dis­tribut­ing it among meals and snacks.”

For decades, di­eti­tians and train­ers gen­er­ally ad­hered to the RDA. But Dr Don­ald Lay­man, a pro­fes­sor of nu­tri­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois, sus­pected this num­ber might be too low. Lay­man had been in­ves­ti­gat­ing how hu­mans metabolised amino acids and whether there was a thresh­old amount re­quired to trig­ger pro­tein syn­the­sis, the bi­o­log­i­cal mech­a­nism that cre­ates mus­cle mass. In 1999, Lay­man con­ducted ex­per­i­ments on rats and found that a spe­cific amount of the es­sen­tial amino acid leucine, con­tained in all pro­tein, is nec­es­sary to kick-start syn­the­sis. Leucine alone can’t cre­ate mus­cle – you need all nine es­sen­tial amino acids to do that – but it’s the cat­a­lyst that ig­nites the process. “Un­til you get enough leucine, pro­tein syn­the­sis won’t run at 100%,” Lay­man ex­plains.

When he ex­trap­o­lated his data to hu­mans, he de­ter­mined that for some­one like me to op­ti­mise post­work­out mus­cle growth, I should be con­sum­ing at least

30g of pro­tein per meal, which pro­vides 2.5g of leucine. For that, a whey- or soy-based pro­tein smoothie with half a pot of yo­gurt added would do the trick, as would a 110g T-bone steak.

But what hap­pens if I eat more than that? Would de­vour­ing, say, 90g of pro­tein in a sin­gle sit­ting (about 350g of salmon) triple mus­cle growth? No one knew the an­swer un­til Dr Doug Pad­donJones, a pro­fes­sor of nu­tri­tion and me­tab­o­lism at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas, con­sulted with Lay­man for a study. In 2009, Pad­don-Jones en­listed a group of vol­un­teers, in­clud­ing eight men in their early 30s, all weigh­ing about 175lb (80kg), and fed them each a 4oz (113g) steak which pro­vided 30g of pro­tein. Five hours later, he took blood sam­ples and mus­cle biop­sies from the vol­un­teers. “There was a 50% im­prove­ment in mus­cle pro­tein syn­the­sis,” says Pad­don-Jones.

When he re­peated the test but ramped up the size of the meal, even­tu­ally tripling pro­tein in­take, syn­the­sis re­mained the same. “That sug­gests that some­where around 30g [per meal for an 80kg man] there is a ceil­ing ef­fect for your abil­ity to use pro­tein-rich foods to build and re­pair mus­cle,” Pad­don-Jones says. That num­ber will rise and fall pro­por­tion­ately: if you’re 105kg, for in­stance, your per-meal pro­tein in­take would rise to 40g. And there are other fac­tors that can push that num­ber even higher, such as genes. Granted, if you’re con­sum­ing more pro­tein than that, there are still some added nutri­tional ben­e­fits – thanks to the amino acids and mi­cronu­tri­ents in a var­ied pro­tein diet (meat, legumes, seafood, soy) – but mus­cle pro­tein syn­the­sis falls off pre­cip­i­tously.

Too much pro­tein in a sin­gle meal is like fill­ing your car’s 60-litre tank with 100 litres of petrol: in the same way that much of the fuel would be wasted, spew­ing out onto the pave­ment, ex­cess pro­tein ends up in your urine. “You don’t have a stor­age site for pro­tein,” ex­plains Phillips. “You can’t pack it away for fur­ther use.”

Pad­don-Jones says one ma­jor is­sue that you’ll rack up ex­tra calo­ries. “The big­gest prob­lem with over­con­sum­ing pro­tein is you’re go­ing to get fat. There’s an up­per limit in terms of what your body can process at one time. You can eat more, but it’s not do­ing your mus­cles much good.”


At the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut, Ro­driguez hones di­ets for pro ath­letes, in­clud­ing those in the NFL, NBA and NHL. She in­structs them to get about 35g of pro­tein per meal, scal­ing it up for heav­ier guys. But will any old pro­tein do? Ro­driguez cites sev­eral new stud­ies that have ex­am­ined plant ver­sus an­i­mal pro­teins, and whole foods com­pared with sup­ple­ments. The up­shot: to grow new mus­cle and get big­ger while ad­her­ing to a low-calo­rie diet, whole, an­i­mal-based sources are prefer­able, specif­i­cally meat, poul­try, fish, eggs and dairy.

In 2015 a World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO) re­port caused car­ni­vores to panic be­cause it la­belled meat a car­cino­gen and lumped ba­con with to­bacco in the high­est-risk cat­e­gory. Not to worry. First, the WHO study sur­veyed peo­ple who con­sumed heaps of meat ev­ery day. These folks are also of­ten over­weight and seden­tary. So does meat give you can­cer? Or do you get it from be­ing fat and lazy? The an­swer is al­most cer­tainly the lat­ter, mean­ing that if you’re fit and work out reg­u­larly, a mod­est serv­ing (about 110g) a few times a week of beef, pork or even ba­con isn’t go­ing to put your health at risk.

“I don’t think you can be­come the best ath­lete you can be with­out meat,” says Dr Luc van Loon, an ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Maas­tricht Uni­ver­sity in the Nether­lands, adding that he favours whole an­i­mal foods like beef be­cause they’re di­gested slowly – a steak can take 24 hours for the body to process – so it pro­vides a steady pro­tein sup­ply all day.

If you’re a veg­e­tar­ian or ve­gan, beans and tofu are ac­cept­able al­ter­na­tives. But re­mem­ber: by pro­por­tion, an­i­mal meat packs up to three times as much pro­tein as plant-based food like legumes and nuts. So with tofu, for ex­am­ple, you’ll have to eat a lot more of it to get the same pro­tein you would din­ing on a hearty filet mignon or a three-egg cheese omelette. Some plant-based pro­teins are also high in car­bo­hy­drates, which, if not read­ily burned off, end up as fat. (Crick­ets are about 70% pro­tein by weight.)

Un­for­tu­nately for veg­e­tar­i­ans, the plant-based soy pro­tein doesn’t build mus­cle as fast as an­i­mal pro­tein or whey. “Soy is about 60% as ef­fec­tive as whey,” says Lay­man. “And if you use a small enough amount, say 12-15g, you will get no mus­cle-build­ing ef­fects.”

If you’re go­ing the sup­ple­ment pow­der route, sci­en­tists sug­gest you choose whey, which is derived from cow’s milk.

For a 2015 study in the Jour­nal Of Food Sci­ence, Phillips an­a­lysed whey, soy and rice pow­ders and found that whey had the high­est leucine con­tent of the three. “And when we’re talk­ing about re­gen­er­at­ing mus­cle, the key is pro­tein higher in leucine,” he says. “Based on our work, whey tops the list.”

Whey also ranks first in its abil­ity to feed mus­cles faster than any other pro­tein type. “Whey pro­tein is ab­sorbed re­ally quickly in the blood, within 15 to 20 min­utes,” Pad­don-Jones says. Train hard and your body burns stored carbs and fat to pro­duce glu­cose for en­ergy. But un­like fat, there’s no pro­tein cache to tap for making mus­cle. And as Van Loon points out, “when you com­bine ex­er­cise with pro­tein, you get a syn­er­gis­tic re­sponse – mus­cle pro­tein syn­the­sis is dou­bled.” That’s why ex­perts love whey: its rapid ab­sorp­tion im­proves the rate of re­build­ing com­pared with other pro­tein sources.


Tim­ing is every­thing. When mus­cles con­tract dur­ing stren­u­ous ex­er­cise the cells be­come more anaer­o­bic, and pro­tein syn­the­sis shuts off. So chug­ging a pro­tein smoothie right be­fore hit­ting the gym or while ex­er­cis­ing is point­less – and a few stud­ies sug­gest it may even be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, im­ped­ing your mus­cles’ abil­ity to grow. On the other hand, re­searchers have mea­sured the largest gains in lean mus­cle growth in ath­letes who con­sume whey pro­tein 30 to 90 min­utes af­ter train­ing. “That’s when you get the big­gest bang for your buck, be­cause the ma­chin­ery is set up to re-syn­the­sise mus­cle,” Ro­driguez says.

When we bulk up in re­sponse to re­sis­tance train­ing, it’s be­cause there’s a net gain of new mus­cle growth. Ex­er­cises break down your mus­cles, which re­spond by re­build­ing them­selves big­ger and stronger – a process that pro­tein am­pli­fies. But like other sci­en­tists, Van Loon once be­lieved this oc­curred only when we were awake. Then a few years ago, he met with a few col­leagues

“There’s an up­per limit of how much pro­tein your body can process at one time. You can eat more, but it’s not do­ing your mus­cles much good”

at a bar and “af­ter too many beers,” as he puts it, “we thought, ‘What hap­pens if we give peo­ple pro­tein dur­ing sleep?’” Sci­en­tists had never con­sid­ered whether pro­tein could be metabolised at night or, if it could, whether mus­cle syn­the­sis would oc­cur.

When you eat pro­tein, its amino acids are dis­patched to var­i­ous tis­sues – mus­cle, or­gan, bone – where they’re used to re­pair and re­build cells. But to de­ter­mine what hap­pens at night, Van Loon had to pin­point the ex­act where and when of this process. So at a uni­ver­sity an­i­mal re­search fa­cil­ity in the Nether­lands, he rigged a Hol­stein cow with in­tra­venous tub­ing and pumped in £30,000 worth of chem­i­cal com­pounds called trac­ers that al­low sci­en­tists to fol­low them through­out the body. From the cow’s milk, Van Loon derived a pro­tein sup­ple­ment he could give to hu­man test sub­jects and then track the amino acids through­out their bod­ies. “I could see the di­ges­tion and ab­sorp­tion, how much of the pro­tein be­comes avail­able in the cir­cu­la­tion, and how much of what you eat lands in the mus­cle over a few hours,” he ex­plains.

Next he con­ducted two sep­a­rate pro­tein-and-sleep stud­ies, re­cruit­ing healthy, ac­tive male sub­jects in their early 20s. In the first ex­per­i­ment, the men ex­er­cised in the evening, then half took a pro­tein sup­ple­ment be­fore bed­time, with the re­main­der fed a placebo. Van Loon found that the pro­tein was ef­fec­tively di­gested and ab­sorbed while the men slept, and mus­cle re­build­ing was also higher. In the next study, he had the sub­jects lift weights for three months in the evenings, with half tak­ing a pro­tein sup­ple­ment be­fore bed­time and the other half a placebo. He found the group who con­sumed pro­tein ahead of sleep­ing had a greater in­crease in mus­cle mass and strength.

Based on his ini­tial re­sults, Van Loon rec­om­mends a “fourth meal” of pro­tein ap­prox­i­mately 30 min­utes be­fore bed­time – that would be about 30g for a guy my size. But keep calo­ries to a min­i­mum, since you’re not go­ing to burn them off while you sleep. Good choices are Greek yo­gurt, cot­tage cheese or a pro­tein smoothie, as­sum­ing you min­imise the sug­ary

fillers like berries and juice. “Pro­tein prior to sleep gives you a greater win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to fa­cil­i­tate mus­cle re­con­di­tion­ing,” Van Loon says. “It turns out that night-time is an un­used pe­riod when you can stim­u­late the adap­tive re­sponse to ex­er­cise.”


Be­cause I’m a car­ni­vore, to me more pro­tein means more seafood, chicken, pork and beef. On top of am­ple salmon and bi­son – two of my favourite foods – dur­ing my in­ves­ti­ga­tion, I added Van Loon’s fourth bed­time “meal” as well as whey af­ter work­outs. And my food shop­ping costs went out of con­trol.

To com­bat this, I de­cided to mix things up. A few times a week I now splurge on pricy seafood (of­ten tuna or hal­ibut, among the pro­tein kings of fish), and for smooth­ies I go with or­ganic, grass-fed whey or Crik pow­der – the tasti­est of the sup­ple­ments, but, at roughly £3 for a 32g serv­ing of pro­tein, the most ex­pen­sive. Pri­mar­ily, though, I rely on pro­tein­packed ba­sics like yo­gurt, eggs, peanut but­ter and cheese.

For break­fast, I do one pot of fat-free Greek yo­gurt blended with blue­berry ke­fir, a ta­ble­spoon of peanut but­ter and a tea­spoon of honey. I fol­low my late-morn­ing work­out with a whey smoothie, us­ing the pro­vided scoop to get the cor­rect amount of pro­tein, then sweeten it with what­ever fruit I hap­pen to have – and that’s lunch. Din­ner varies, but the main dish is al­most al­ways a high-pro­tein whole food, such as pork or salmon, and be­fore bed I might snack on a bowl of cot­tage cheese topped with sliced chicken or turkey breast.

I also learn about one big pro­tein no-no: booze. Both Phillips and Pad­don-Jones re­count a tale shared among pro­tein geeks, which in­volves a team of Aus­tralian Rules foot­ball play­ers. Dur­ing the off-sea­son they’d meet ev­ery Fri­day at a gym for weight train­ing. After­ward, they’d go drink­ing at a nearby pub. “No one was get­ting stronger in the off-sea­son,” Pad­don-Jones says. A coach with a hunch about the booze changed their train­ing to Tues­days – a less con­ve­nient night to get the beers in – “and they put on a ton of mus­cle mass and strength. Al­co­hol was shut­ting down pro­tein syn­the­sis.”

In 2013 Phillips led the first ever ex­per­i­ment to test the the­ory. He gath­ered eight men ages 21 to 26 and put them through an ex­er­cise rou­tine that in­cluded weightlift­ing, cy­cling and high­in­ten­sity in­ter­val train­ing. Af­ter the work­out, he gave them each 50g of pro­tein over a four-hour pe­riod and then got them smashed. Over the sub­se­quent eight hours, he took tis­sue biop­sies from their quad mus­cles. The re­sult: mus­cle-pro­tein syn­the­sis had dropped by 24% com­pared with his con­trol group, who got pro­tein but no booze.

“Eight vod­kas def­i­nitely messed up their mus­cles’ abil­ity to utilise pro­tein,” he says. “Al­co­hol af­fects your abil­ity to re­gen­er­ate and re­pair mus­cle and get it ready for a sub­se­quent work­out. If you’re an ath­lete, reg­u­larly con­sum­ing more than one or two drinks a day is not rec­om­mended.”


Af­ter two weeks, not only have I lost weight – chiefly be­cause pro­tein makes me feel fuller, which keeps me from snack­ing, and be­cause of pro­tein’s ther­mic ef­fects, so I ac­tu­ally burn calo­ries while di­gest­ing it – I also feel great. But I do no­tice some­thing else that’s come with my new diet: I’m al­ways thirsty. As it turns out, pro­tein is hy­gro­scopic, which means it at­tracts wa­ter like a mag­net at­tracts iron fil­ings. “If you shift to high-pro­tein, you should drink 50% more wa­ter than you were drink­ing be­fore,” Lay­man ad­vises. But this gets me won­der­ing: be­sides de­hy­dra­tion, what other po­ten­tial risks might pro­tein pose?

Low-carb di­ets, like the Atkins, which be­came pop­u­lar in the ’90s, preached all-you-can-eat pro­tein. With Atkins, you can fill up on steak and eggs as long as you limit carbs – con­sume enough pro­tein and you’ll be too stuffed to eat any­thing else. (In con­trast, the Pa­leo diet rightly em­braces pro­tein for its su­pe­rior nutri­tional value. It falls short, how­ever, be­cause it doesn’t pre­scribe how much pro­tein to eat or when to eat it. It also re­jects dairy – even Greek yo­gurt, which new re­search has iden­ti­fied as a su­perla­tive pro­tein.)

At the height of the Atkins craze, re­ports of health prob­lems sur­faced, the most se­ri­ous be­ing kid­ney fail­ure. I ask Phillips whether I should be con­cerned, and I’m told no. Be­cause many of the Atkins di­eters were over­weight, he ex­plains, they were also “verg­ing on type 2 di­a­betes”, a dis­ease that can in­clude kid­ney dys­func­tion. “But as the cir­cu­lar logic went, the high pro­tein caused the kid­ney fail­ure in the first place, and there’s no ev­i­dence of that.”

The other myth is that high pro­tein in­take is bad for your bones. The the­ory used to be that pro­tein-rich foods nudged your body’s pH bal­ance to­ward higher acid­ity, and too much acid would leach min­er­als in­clud­ing cal­cium from bones and lead to os­teo­poro­sis. But, says Ro­driguez, “we’re re­al­is­ing that eat­ing ad­e­quate pro­tein, along with cal­cium, is good for your bones, not bad for them”. Cur­rent re­search in­di­cates that pro­tein in fact in­creases bone den­sity by im­prov­ing calo­rie ab­sorp­tion. In a 2008 study in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal Of Clin­i­cal Nu­tri­tion, Lay­man wrote, “Higher-pro­tein di­ets are as­so­ci­ated with greater bone mass and fewer frac­tures when cal­cium in­take is ad­e­quate.”

There’s still one ques­tion that can’t be over­looked: how will con­sum­ing 100g or more of pro­tein ev­ery day for years on end im­pact long-term mus­cle health? “We can’t an­swer that quite yet,” Lay­man says. We do know men in their mid-40s will find that their mus­cles be­gin to shrink nat­u­rally. “As we get older, we’re less ef­fi­cient at turn­ing pro­tein into mus­cle,” Lay­man says. This has led nu­tri­tion­ists to as­sume that older adults need less pro­tein. Hav­ing doc­u­mented what high pro­tein in­take does for younger men, sci­en­tists now chal­lenge that as­sump­tion and plan to con­duct lon­gi­tu­di­nal stud­ies to track men and their mus­cles over a life­time.

It would be good to know this – but the sud­den jump in strength and re­cov­ery I ex­pe­ri­ence af­ter dis­re­gard­ing the RDA and dou­bling my pro­tein in­take is rea­son enough to en­cour­age me to stick with it long-term. Bring on the crick­ets.

“Pro­tein prior to sleep gives you a greater win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to fa­cil­i­tate mus­cle re­con­di­tion­ing. Try Greek yo­gurt or cot­tage cheese”

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